China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 107 mins.
Director: Rao Xiaozhi 饶晓志.
Ambitious black comedy on “normality” vs “madness” is confidently packaged with meaty roles.
China, the present day. An Xi (Wang Qian) wakes up to find herself in a barred cell that leads to a large, multi-levelled space with stairways and gantries. Five men and one other woman are also imprisoned there, which seems to be part of an old, abandoned hospital. Seven new uniforms are hanging in a cupboard, and a surveillance camera is spying on them. They introduce themselves to each other and compare notes on how they got there: reporter Li Zheng (Zhou Yiwei), who’s still on a crutch from an accident; lawyer Ma Rui (Wang Zijian), who had an asthma attack; vet Han Mushen (Liu Liangzuo), who was trapped in a lift on the way to his six-year-old daughter’s birthday party; Lili (Mo Xiaoqi), who works in public relations; taxi driver Yang Meng (Li Hongchen), who still wears a neck brace from a car crash; and Xiao Nai’en (Jin Shijie), a high-school history teacher who was knocked out by a falling blackboard. An Xi, who is unemployed, can’t remember how she got there. They then discover they’re in the remote Qingshan Mental Illness Rehabilitation Centre 青山精神疾病康复中心. Suddenly, a single lunch box and some pills are passed through a hatch in a door. After a discussion, they decide not to consume either. But then An Xi, in hiding, watches as her co-prisoners are hawled away by nurses in white coats. Each is interrogated by the hospital’s head (Cao Weiyu), who says they can only be released if they can prove they are “normal” and not mad, and if they don’t take the medicine they will get electro-shock treatment. Everyone refuses and, in the face of this impasse, Li Zheng suggests they take a collective approach, by pretending they’re all happily “normal”. Various ruses, like singing and dancing, don’t work, and their collective spirit breaks down, with Yang Meng trying to take over leadership from Li Zheng. Then Han Mushan, Xiao Nai’en and Ma Rui have another idea on how to cheat their way out. But it’s cut short by the hospital head announcing that only one of them is actually mad: the rest can leave if they can identify that person.
Seven complete strangers find themselves in a mental asylum, where they have to prove they’re “normal”, in The Insanity 你好，疯子！, a black absurdist comedy that slides between drama and psycho-horror with varying success. Despite its faults, however, this first feature film by theatre and TV director-writer Rao Xiaozhi 饶晓志, 36, deserves an extra point for its confident packaging on a technical level and a screenplay that provides meaty roles for the whole ensemble without descending into farce. Like the rather more madcap comedy The Double Life A面B面 (2010), the film is partly about the paper-thin line between sanity and madness, and how everyone has the potential to go crazy; but it also goes one step further by dealing with multiple-personality disorder in a challenging and unobvious way, entering the subject at an almost lateral level.
Much of the film’s quality mounting would appear to be down to producer Guo Fan 郭帆, 36, who co-directed the out-there Lee’s Adventure 李献计历险记 (2011), as well as the more conventional and successful rom-com My Old Classmate 同桌的妳 (2014), and who here takes a producing role. D.p. Liu Yin 刘寅, whose versatile widescreen photography points up the film’s shifting moods, shot Classmate, while art director Nan Nan 南楠, who preserves in a non-abstract way the play’s stage design of a multi-level set with walkways, was the designer on Lee’s Adventure, a movie that also took place inside a character’s head. As the cherry on the cake, Hong Kong veteran Zhang Jiahui 张嘉辉 [Cheung Ka-fai] supervised the mobile editing that helps build an ensemble feel.
Many of the screenplay’s qualities are in the original 2013 play of the same name by Rao and regular collaborator Liu Jing 刘婧 (see poster, left), to which the script by Rao and young theatre writer-director Lei Zhilong 雷志龙 sticks closely while opening up the action a little from cues in the dialogue (as when the characters describe how they came to be in the asylum). Though the film has the feel of a stage adaptation from early on, that’s no bad thing – as 12 Citizens 十二公民 (2014), based on the US live teleplay 12 Angry Men (1954), triumphantly proved – and at least holds the promise of some quality dialogue. On a structural level, the cleverest thing about The Insanity is the way in which it consistently wrong-foots the audience, starting off like a psycho-horror (young woman wakes up in a grim prison cell), morphing into an ensemble absurdist comedy as she and her fellow-inmates have to prove they’re “normal” to be let free by their captor, and then making several twists (including a final one after the end titles have finished) that completely move the goalposts on what the story is supposedly about.
Not all of these mood-changes and switches work, especially in the middle, where the performances – like the film’s unrepresentative poster – are a tad overheated and marginally pantomime-y. Some of the red herrings and fantasy elements thrown in here and there are also unnecessarily confusing. But the plot does just about make sense by the end, and requires some work by the audience to figure out rather than just having an explanatory monologue. Again, kudos to everyone for not taking the obvious route.
Performances by the entire cast are on the nose, with Zhou Yiwei 周一围 (the psycho gangster in Blood of Youth 少年, 2016) intellectually commanding as the journalist who so often takes charge, and theatre/TV actor Li Hongchen 李虹辰 making a strongly physical impression in his movie debut, as the taxi-driver who tries to usurp him. Veteran Jin Shijie 金士杰 (one of Taiwan’s busiest actors in Mainland cinema) skilfully walks a comedic-dramatic tightrope as a high-school teacher, while his compatriot Liu Liangzuo 刘亮佐 adds sympathetic ballast as a vet who just wants to see his young daughter. More forceful in the early stages, as a “public relations” floozie, Mo Xiaoqi 莫小棋 (the father’s p.a. in horror The House That Never Dies 京城81号, 2014) essentially yields the field in the final half-hour to top-billed actress Wan Qian 万茜 (the lead’s classy love interest in Paradise in Service 军中乐园, 2014; the wife in Hide and Seek 捉迷藏, 2016), who comes through strongly after taking a back seat in the middle going.
Released during the busy end-of-year period, the film made made almost no impression at the box office, generating only RMB16 million. The Chinese title means “Hello, Lunatic!”. The movie is not to be confused with Hong Kong psychodrama Insanity 暴疯语 (2015).
Presented by Fujian Hengye Film Distribution (CN). Produced by Beijing Optimism Film (CN).
Script: Rao Xiaozhi, Lei Zhilong. Play: Liu Jing, Rao Xiaozhi. Photography: Liu Yin. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Ye Ruchang. Music: Ding Doudou, Wei Wei. Music direction: Sha Weiqi. Art direction: Nan Nan. Costumes: Zhu Qian. Styling: Lan Bing. Sound: Jiang Jianqiang, Lv Yan. Action: Yang Chongyu, Wang Yongcheng. Executive direction: Zhang Yu.
Cast: Wang Qian (An Xi/Icy), Zhou Yiwei (Li Zheng, reporter), Wang Zijian (Ma Rui, lawyer), Jin Shijie (Xiao Nai’en, teacher), Li Hongchen (Yang Meng, taxi driver), Mo Xiaoqi (Lili/Lily, PR), Liu Liangzuo (Han Mushan, vet), Cao Weiyu (hospital head), Han Zhenkui (Yang, hotel manager).
Release: China, 30 Dec 2016.